Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Where's Senator Tester? (On earmark reform)

Our newly-minted Senator Jon Tester rightly got some good attention when he crossed the aisle to vote with fiscally conservative Republicans on earmark reform, much to the chagrin of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

But things have been mysteriously silent since then.

The DeMint amendment passed 98-0 shortly after the new Congress took office. This was only because Sen. Jim DeMint, R-SC, forced the issue and with bipartisan support embarrassed Senate leadership -- Democrat and Republican alike -- into abandoning the fake earmark "reform" that Sen. Reid wanted. Still, actual enactment of the strict earmark reporting required by the amendment has languished. Bob Novak reports:

But the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service heard a different message from the new masters of Capitol Hill. On Feb. 22, it said it "will no longer identify earmarks for individual programs, activities, entities or individuals."

That deprived DeMint and Coburn of their primary source of intelligence. Furthermore, the ethics bill was bogged down in the House (which normally would pass anything the Democratic leadership wanted).

The DeMint rule was an amendment to nothing. Legislation was going through the congressional pipeline with undisclosed earmarks, as requests for earmark applications still did not require transparency.

DeMint's attempt to bring up his rule for passage by unanimous consent was thwarted by Senate Democrats on April 12, and was thwarted again the next day when DeMint tried again with the help of the "Gang of Five" -- DeMint, Coburn, Cornyn, Enzi, and Chambliss.

At that time, the "Gang of Five" went on record with a letter to Majority Leader Reid and Minority Leader McConnell to make sure that their intent was clearly announced and that the previous claim of "we didn't have any notice" wouldn't work.

Mysteriously missing from this letter is the signature of any Democratic Senator, including those two freshmen Senators with "strong independent streaks" -- Sen. Tester and Virginia Sen. Webb. We would, incidentally, be interested to know exactly what in that letter would be something that Sen. Tester would be unwilling to sign -- or that he and Senator Webb wouldn't be willing to put in a letter or declaration of their own to the Senate leadership. This, just in case they weren't invited to sign the Gang of Five's letter.

Note that this shouldn't be a partisan issue -- on the initial amendment, some Democratic Senators, including Sen. Tester, joined with conservative Senate Republicans to gang up on the earmark-loving leadership of both parties. Novak reported that there was at least one perfidious Republican Senator who threatened to derail the earmark reform implementation if the Democrats didn't.

Also, as our Rep. Denny Rehberg has correctly pointed out, earmarking in and of itself is not an entirely bad concept -- it is a way for Congress to direct spending, rather than having unelected executive branch bureaucrats make all of those decisions.

What made earmarks so terribly abused was the fact that lawmakers could escape responsibility and public attention by circumventing the normal public budgeting process. Right now, the level of transparency was promised by the DeMint amendment hasn't materialized -- Senators get to say they voted for transparency, but don't have to live with its reality.

For the record, while Montana Headlines strongly supported Senator Burns, who readily used the earmarking process to bring money to Montana, we don't like this kind of waste and abuse, no matter which party does it.

We know not to expect anything constructive from Senator Baucus on this score. But given the fact that Senator Tester made transparency on things like earmarks a big issue in his campaign against Sen. Burns, we'd like to know what he's doing to combat his party leadership on earmarking, now that the initial buzz of his arrival in Washington has faded.

Since end-around earmarks are still very much alive and well, the rubber needs to be hitting the road, but Senator Tester seems to be still out spinning his tires on gravel roads.

No comments: